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Forensics program teams up with Beckley PD on enhanced learning experiences

WVU Tech students investigate a mock crime scene.

Picture this: red and blue lights bathe the park entryway as two young investigators arrive at the scene. They’re greeted by an officer from the Beckley Police Department. He tells them about the scene, that there’s a suspect in custody and that officers are interviewing potential witnesses. One investigator takes out a notebook and begins to jot down notes while the other turns on her camera. They’ve got work to do – because it’s up to them to begin piecing the puzzle together.

This is no real crime scene; at least in that no crime has actually been committed. Instead, it’s a new kind of classroom. It’s a learning experience so vivid and so true to life that students who complete it will gain a unique insider’s view of what investigative work is like in the field. It’s also just one of the many learning experiences being developed in a new partnership between WVU Tech’s Forensic Investigation program and the Beckley Police Department.

The two groups recently signed a memorandum of understanding that outlines a partnership based on mutual learning experiences. The Beckley Police Department, with its wealth of experience, will help WVU Tech students learn new skills in an immersive environment.

Roger Jefferys, a professor in WVU Tech’s Forensic Investigation program, said that the partnership holds immense potential for the student experience.

“It’s all about enhancement. We want to enhance our students' education. That's the primary focus: giving the students unique opportunities that they wouldn't otherwise have,” he said. 

One of the goals of the partnership is to extend the mock crime scene experience into the city of Beckley, where students can train in real-life environments like the two young investigators in the intro. The program plans to work with police and other first responders to maximize the authenticity of the experience. WVU Tech faculty will set up mock scenes and students will have to investigate the scene and collect evidence as they work alongside the first responders.

“Not only will we be able to train students at our new crime scene house and on other areas of campus, but also out in the city, which I believe has never been done before in this type of environment,” said Jefferys. “This takes learning to a whole new level and will be extremely beneficial to our students. In addition, they could be called out at any time, day or night, which will reflect what they will experience in their professional careers.”

“It doesn’t stop there though. Once students have completed their work at the scene, they will testify in mock trials held in real courtrooms featuring actual attorneys and judges," he said.

Detective Sergeant Morgan Bragg, an officer with the Beckley Police Department’s detective bureau, said the partnership will create well-rounded students. 

“I think it's an opportunity for students to get a more hands-on approach. We have a unique ability to allow them to experience it in a real-life situation as opposed to book study. The opportunity to actually be involved in real-world situations is one of the better ways to learn,” he said.

Working with the department will also provide the program access to a shooting range. The arrangement will provide a location for detailed instruction on the topic of firearms and other areas of forensics.

“The use of the range will allow us to set up many different training exercises for our students, from basic safety to reconstructing shooting incidents,” Jefferys said. “The range will also be used by faculty for research purposes, which adds yet another way students can get involved and build their resume.”   

Jefferys said that the program plans to use vehicles provided by Laxton’s Auto Repair in Beckley for reconstructions. That relationship was developed as part of the partnership and will provide vehicles each semester to be used in shooting reconstructions, hit-and-run investigations and other mock crime scenes.

There’s benefit for police officers as well. The Beckley Police Department’s newly established crime scene team will be given access to the university’s crime scene house for specialized crime scene training.

“We're excited about it. That's not something we've had access to before,” said Bragg. “We've got officers that are deeply interested in topics that involve crime scene work. I think our ability to borrow that house for training purposes will be excellent. The more well-trained our crime scene officers are, the better our clearance rates are, and that's better for the community.”

Jefferys said that the two parties also plan to develop a program that would complement existing investigative courses by allowing students to gain valuable casework experience assisting the police department on cold case investigations and financial crimes.  

Bragg said the department would welcome the help.

“We're at 53 officers at this point. We answer approximately 20,000 calls for service each year. The resource of having students help us – whether it be canvasing an area on a cold case or helping us collate or enter data – would be extremely beneficial to us and to the community,” he said. 

Students who have an interest will also be able to work with community organizations like CrimeStoppers, attend special guest lectures and participate in off-campus site visits and internships.

For Jefferys, the partnership is the beginning of what he hopes will be a long and productive relationship.

“We are very excited about partnering with the Beckley Police Department and look forward to working with them long-term. This is a big step forward for our program, and students who are actively involved in what we’re doing here are going to be very well prepared for their future careers,” he said.

Visit the program's website to explore Forensic Investigation at WVU Tech.